The American mythology of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and the pioneer spirit has traveled far and, like any good myth, picked up embellishments along the way. Emerson, Thoreau, and then later (in her own way) Ayn Rand all celebrated the great American virtue of going it alone. The Pilgrim, the Pioneer, the Cowboy, and the Capitalist—all heroes of this folklore—share the same narrative: go west and go alone. Yet somehow that story never seems to hold up. The Pilgrims, it turns out, shared food, pioneers—camps. And yes, even cowboys get the blues. “Our national myths,” writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.” That is, they belie the fact that it was indeed the good will, the trust, and the reciprocity—the social capital—of communities and of neighbors that made America possible.
Today, our definition of community is changing. A majority of American adults don’t know their neighbors by name though most are on Facebook. American children play more online than play outside. And while the internet age, has brought unprecedented access to information, networks, and commerce, it's unclear if it has brought us closer or has in fact further isolated us. And its not just Americans. In emerging economies, where modernity often means individualism, the pursuit of The American Dream is alive and well on television and iPhone screens from Shanghai to São Paulo. This trend towards American-style materialism and individualism is alarming to religious leaders and environmentalists alike. “We don’t need each other for anything anymore,” notes Bill McKibben. “If we have enough money, we’re insulated from depending on those around us—which is at least as much a loss as a gain." Is it possible that in the exhaustive pursuit of individual happiness, in the creation of our own story, that we’ve forgotten our shared story, that we’ve forgotten everyone else?
Neighborday is about creating a new story. It's about transcending the old story of self to create a new story of us. It's about expanding our definition of self to include those who live above us, below us, and next to us. It's a call to action of the most important kind: to let our neighbors in, and to build more self-reliant streets, blocks, and neighborhoods, together. “But to be authentic,” farmer and poet Wendell Berry reminds us, “this revival would have to be accomplished mainly by the community itself. It would have to be done not from the outside, but from the inside, by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be home.”
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and we'll send you GOOD's Neighborday Survival Guide and a bunch of other fun stuff.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne